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Modern Intellectual History, 5, 1 (2008), pp C 2008 Cambridge University Press doi: /s Printed in the United Kingdom the intellectual origins of tocqueville s l ancien régime

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Modern Intellectual History, 5, 1 (2008), pp C 2008 Cambridge University Press doi: /s Printed in the United Kingdom the intellectual origins of tocqueville s l ancien régime et la révolution annelien de dijn University of Leuven This essay shows that the central core of Tocqueville s book, its condemnation of the centralist state of the Old Regime, can be placed in a specific tradition in French political thought the legitimist critique of centralization. Long before the publication of L Ancien Régime et la Révolution, the legitimists had made the problem of centralization into one of their central themes, and they had come to attribute all of France s ills to the centralist legacy. As this essay illustrates, the particular vocabulary and arguments used by the legitimists to describe the nefarious effects of centralization on the French body politic showed a considerable resemblance to the language used by Tocqueville in L Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Indeed, this resemblance is so striking that, while direct influence is difficult to pinpoint, the legitimist publicists and political thinkers discussed in this essay many of whom were friends or acquaintances of Tocqueville s contributed in an important way to shaping the linguistic universe in which L Ancien Régime et la Révolution was created. Alexis de Tocqueville holds a special place in the pantheon of nineteenthcentury French political thinkers. More than any other publicist of his time, he is seen by French intellectuals ranging from François Furet to Marcel Gauchet as a writer who still speaks to us today, as our contemporary almost, more than as a thinker whose ideas are rooted in a bygone age. 1 Tocqueville s reputation as a quintessentially modern thinker is based in part on the visionary quality of his De la démocratie en Amérique. But perhaps even more important for his The author wishes to thank the FWO-Vlaanderen for their generous funding of this project. 1 François Furet in particular has played an important role in the rediscovery of Tocqueville s work in France; see his Penser la Révolution française (Paris, 1978). Marcel Gauchet s seminal article on Tocqueville is available in Mark Lilla, ed., New French Thought: Political Philosophy (Princeton, 1994), The Tocqueville revival in France is discussed in Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French,trans.Beth Raps (Charlotsville, 1998), ; and Serge Audier, Tocqueville retrouvé. Genèse et enjeux du renouveau Tocquevillien français (Paris, 2004). 1 2 annelien de dijn appeal in France today is L Ancien Régime et la Révolution. With its critique of the centralist legacy of the Old Regime, L Ancien Régime et la Révolution expressed a view on French political culture which has made a remarkable comeback in contemporary political discourse. Unlike his contemporaries (but like presentday historians), so the argument runs, Tocqueville understood that the French Revolution had not been a liberating event. Rather, its centralizing tendencies had strengthened the illiberal nature of the French state, preventing it from following the Anglo-Saxon model of liberal democracy. This contemporary quality to Tocqueville s historical work has long discouraged an investigation into the intellectual context in which L Ancien Régime et la Révolution was written. Especially since the publication of François Furet s Penser la Révolution française, it has become customary to stress the original nature of Tocqueville s historical views. Thus Furet describes L Ancien Régime as the stepchild of the historiography on the French Revolution, more often cited than read, and more read than understood, and as a unique case in his understanding of the weight of the centralist legacy on French political culture. 2 This view continues to be defended in Robert Gannett s recent study of the sources of Tocqueville s L Ancien Régime et la Révolution. While Gannett discusses Tocqueville s engagement with predecessors and contemporaries such as Edmund Burke, Benjamin Constant and Prosper de Barante, he concludes that Tocqueville s career as a historian was pursued with a fierce individualism. 3 Likewise, Françoise Mélonio has argued in her encompassing analysis of Tocqueville s engagement with his contemporaries that L Ancien Régime et la Révolution was not part of any particular intellectual lineage. 4 This essay aims to show otherwise. More specifically, I will argue that the central core of Tocqueville s book, its condemnation of the centralist state of the Old Regime, can be placed into a specific tradition in French political thought the legitimist critique of centralization. If this point has been overlooked by most historians, it is because legitimist contributions to political and historical debate in nineteenth-century France are usually dismissed as obscurantist or uninteresting. 5 A substantial part of this essay will therefore be taken up by 2 FrançoisFuret,Interpreting the French Revolution,trans.ElborgForster(Cambridge,1981), Robert Gannett, Tocqueville Unveiled: The Historian and His Sources for The Old Regime and the Revolution (Chicago and London, 2003), Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French, The neglect of the legitimist contribution to the debate about centralization in France is especially pronounced for the Restoration period and the July Monarchy, on which this paper focuses. Recently, Sudhir Hazareesingh has published an excellent study of the debate about decentralization in the Second Empire, From Subject to Citizen: The Second Empire and the Emergence of Modern French Democracy (Princeton, 1998), in which the legitimist the intellectual origins of tocqueville s l ancien régime et la révolution 3 reviewing the legitimist contribution to the debate about decentralization in order to correct this view. I will show that the legitimists made the problem of centralization into one of their central themes, in particular during the July Monarchy, and that they had come to attribute all of France s ills to the centralist legacy long before the publication of L Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Moreover, I will argue that the particular vocabulary and arguments used by the legitimists to describe the nefarious effects of centralization on the French body politic showed a considerable resemblance to the language used by Tocqueville in L Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Indeed, this resemblance is so striking that, while direct influence is difficult to pinpoint, it can safely be argued that the legitimist publicists and political thinkers discussed in this essay many of whom were friends or acquaintances of Tocqueville s contributed in an important way to shaping the linguistic universe in which L Ancien Régime et la Révolution was created. By drawing attention to the legitimist sources of L Ancien Régime et la Révolution, I do not wish to argue that Tocqueville was an unoriginal or less important writer than he has been made out to be. However, I do hope to give the reader a better grasp of the intellectual context in which Tocqueville s ideas took shape, similar to the way in which the political thought of thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes or Machiavelli has been historicized over the past few decades. Like these thinkers, Tocqueville must be seen, if we want to come to a more historical understanding of his work, as a historical agent who took part in particular debates. By doing so, I also aim to demonstrate that legitimist thinkers had a far greater impact on the development of French political thought than is usually assumed. 6 The myth of French exceptionalism, it will become clear, was a legitimist myth, and in propagating this myth Tocqueville was making use of arguments that had first been developed in an intellectual environment he had renounced in The question of decentralization was raised almost immediately after the return of the Bourbons to France in Among the politicians and publicists urging Louis XVIII to reform the administrative system were prominent liberals, contribution to the debate about centralization in the Second Empire receives ample attention. For an equally informed, if more traditional, account of legitimist decentralist thought under the Second Empire see Steven D. Kale, Legitimism and the Reconstruction of French Society (Baton Rouge and London, 1992). 6 On this subject see also Annelien de Dijn, Aristocratic Liberalism in post-revolutionary France, Historical Journal 48 (2005), 4 annelien de dijn such as Benjamin Constant, who in 1814 described decentralization as one of the most pressing issues of the day. 7 However, the most committed critics of the centralist legacy were to be found among Constant s political opponents, the royalists (also described as ultra-royalists or ultras). 8 Prominent politicians such as Joseph de Villèle, the royalists parliamentary leader, repeatedly pleaded for a reform of the local administration, and a first attempt to decentralize was made when a royalist government came to power in Royalists condemned centralization because it made administration slower and less efficient. Many of them were also convinced that local communities had a right to administer their own interests, because they were, like individuals, natural bodies pre-existing the state. An even more important theme in the royalists anti-centralist critique, however, was that the continued centralization of the administration posed a major threat to the survival of the restored monarchy. This view was based on a particular analysis of the effects of centralization on the body politic. The elimination of independent local bodies on the municipal and on the provincial level, royalist publicists warned, had created an all-powerful government. The French state had effectively eliminated the checks and balances which were such a prominent feature of the English political system. This had led to the isolation of individual French citizens from one another, so that they had become unable to resist despotism. But the process of centralization had not just undermined the liberty of the French state. It had also made France more vulnerable to revolutionary upheaval, since the atomization of society had paradoxically made the state more fragile while expanding its powers. As a result, royalist advocates of decentralization emphasized, France was in danger of descending again into the revolutionary cycle of anarchy and military despotism. This conviction was fuelled by the collapse of the restored monarchy in 1815, when Napoleon had managed to recapture the French throne without great difficulty after his escape from Elba. The dangers of centralization were highlighted in particular by Joseph Fiévée, a former supporter of Napoleon who had transferred his loyalty to the Bourbons in Fiévée, whose one-man journal Correspondance politique et administrative 7 Benjamin Constant, Réflexions sur les constitutions, la distribution des pouvoirs, et les garanties, dans une monarchie constitutionelle (Paris, 1814). 8 On the royalist party see J. J. Oechselin, Le Mouvement ultra-royaliste sous la Restauration. Son idéologie et son action politique (Paris, 1960). 9 On the royalists initial enthusiasm for decentralization see Rudolf von Thadden, La Centralisation contestée, trans. Hélène Cusa and Patrick Charbonneau (Paris, 1989), ;François Burdeau, Liberté, libertés locales chéries! (Paris, 1983), On Fiévée s political thought see Jeremy Popkin, Conservatism under Napoleon: The Political Writings of Joseph Fiévée, History of European Ideas 5 (1984), ; Benoît Yvert, La Pensée politiquedejosephfiévée, Revuedelasociété d histoire de la Restauration the intellectual origins of tocqueville s l ancien régime et la révolution 5 was one of the most influential royalist publications, had become interested in the problem of centralization early on in his career as a journalist. Under the Empire he had shown his concern for the organization of local administration in his Des Opinions et des intérêts (1809), an analysis of the causes of the French Revolution, and in his correspondence with the Emperor. Oh! How much better I like the old days when the government only occupied themselves with governing, when they left each locality, each profession, each trade to police and administer itself, after granting each group the regulations it had sought in its own interest, he wrote to Napoleon. 11 After the return of the Bourbons in 1814, hecontinuedto develop these themes in his journal and in other publications. In Fiévée s view, a reform of the administrative system was absolutely necessary if Louis XVIII wanted to safeguard the stability of the restored monarchy. In the very first article he wrote after the return of the Bourbons, entitled Réflexions sur la Constitution à venir, relatives aux biens des Communes et àlalibertécompatibleaveclamonarchie, Fiévée explained that a reform of the administrative system was of paramount importance to the establishment of freedom and stability in France. Indeed, in his view, the question of decentralization was by far the most important problem the French would have to address, more important even than the problem of the separation of powers which had so preoccupied liberal constitutional thought since the outbreak of the Revolution. According to Fiévée, liberals were mistaken to believe that the creation of a balance of executive, legislative and judiciary power would suffice to safeguard liberty in France. The idea that liberty depended on the existence of bicameral representation was derived from a mistaken interpretation of the English example. Instead, English history taught that liberty resided in the existence of a more or less independent municipal power. C est là l origine et la base de toutes les libertés dans les Etats modernes, he wrote, c est le fondement de l édifice où nous apercevons deux Chambres; c est le principe actif de la constitution anglaise; et je ne vois pas qu il en soit question dans les projets qu on nous représente. 12 Fiévée further elucidated this idea by making an innovative distinction between governmental and administrative centralization, which was to have a central role in Tocqueville s reflections on this theme. He made clear that in each state a distinction could be made between on the one hand a governing power and on the other hand an administrative power. In France, however, these two powers et de la monarchie constitutionnelle (1990), Fiévée s career is discussed in Jean Tulard s Joseph Fiévée, conseiller secret de Napoléon (Paris, 1985). 11 Quoted in Popkin, Conservatism, Joseph Fiévée, Réflexions sur la Constitution à venir, relatives aux biens des Communes et àlalibertécompatibleaveclamonarchie, Correspondance politique et administrative, commencé au mois de mai 1814; etdédiéà M.le comte de Blacas d Aulps 1 (1815), 4. 6 annelien de dijn had become confused when under Mazarin the executive had started to usurp all administrative functions. The Revolution had further increased this tendency, so that France was now characterized by a highly centralized administration. This development, Fiévée warned, posed a major threat to freedom, because liberty depended much more on the organization of the administrative system than on the existence of a representative institution. Si la liberté ne tient qu à des discussions dans deux Chambres, he wrote, point de liberté. Si l administration générale est, au contraire, contrariée quelquesfois dans sa marche rapide par le pouvoir muncipal, il y aura liberté; les administrateurs auront besoin des talens, et surtout du talent assez rare de conduire des hommes qui ont quelque chose àdéfendre. 13 Fiévée s concern about administrative centralization led him to introduce a second, and even more important, Tocquevilleian theme in an article entitled Du pouvoir souverain et de l isolement des français. 14 In this article he explained that the abolition of local liberties had atomized French society, leaving individual citizens isolated and powerless in face of central government. He described how the rise of the absolute state, a process which had started with Louis XIV and which had been completed by the Revolution, had dispersed the corporations of the Old Regime, destroyed the local institutions and created a power without limits at the centre. This had left the citizens isolated from one another. Il n y a plus de nation, quioque jamais on n ait tant parlé de nation: il n est resté en France que des individus isolés. 15 For this reason, the despotism of the most insignificant bureaucrat had surpassed every known tyranny during the French Revolution. This situation had been maintained under Napoleon, and it remained characteristic of Restoration France. Personne n y est considérable par soi-même, personne n y a des forces individuelles; et il n y a de réunion dans l Etat, jusqu àcejour,quelesdeuxchambrescréées par le Roi lui-même. 16 According to Fiévée, this situation in France did not just threaten liberty, it also made stability impossible. He hinted in his Correspondance that the Revolution itself had been caused by the excessive centralization of the monarchy of the Old Regime and thus that the Bourbons themselves were at least partly responsible for their downfall. The Revolution had become inevitable, he wrote, from the moment that the gens du Roi started to centralize the administration. 17 The more recent collapse of the restored monarchy in 1815, when Napoleon had reconquered his throne after his escape from Elba, should likewise be attributed 13 Ibid., Joseph Fiévée, Du pouvoir souverain et de l isolement des français, Correspondance politique et administrative 1 (1815), Ibid., Ibid., Joseph Fiévée, Correspondance politique et administrative 3 (1816), 76. the intellectual origins of tocqueville s l ancien régime et la révolution 7 to the fact that Louis XVIII had failed to reform local administration upon his return to France. If this administration monstrueuse had been dismantled, Napoleon would not have been able to return to France so easily, Fiévée believed: Ce n auroit plus été ailleurs la France de Buonaparte, mais un pays où ilyauroiteude puissans moyens de résistance à la tyrannie par l ascendant de la réunion des principaux propriétaires, et parce qu on auroit eu à défendre des libertés nouvellement acquises, libertés si chères à tous les peuples qu elles existent partout où l homme n a pas perdu le sentiment de sa dignité. 18 Fiévée s plea for decentralization created quite a stir in the early Restoration period. His Correspondance elicited several hostile replies from pro-ministerial publicists. The anonymous author of Considérations sur quelques doctrines politiques de M. Fiévée (1816) was highly critical of Fiévée s doctrine. He argued that a state should be characterized by unity if it wanted to endure. Fiévée s proposals for decentralization were therefore highly dangerous, as they threatened the very survival of the French monarchy. Moreover, the development of French history was towards more and not less centralization. The terrible condition of the French people under feudalism illustrated how dangerous it would be to reverse that trend. 19 Another anonymous pamphleteer argued that municipal independence was necessary because local communities had a right to manage their own property, not because they should act as a check on central power. The financial system should give more independence to the communes again so that they could save for future necessities, but they should not be able to subvert the king s authority. 20 Fiévée s decentralist ideas were shared, however, by his fellow royalists. In a widely publicized speech of 1818, JosephdeVillèle all but adopted Fiévée s argument that the centralization of the administration which
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